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Review: Memoir ‘At the Chinese Table’ is both cookbook and delicious love story

Carolyn Phillips is the author of the memoir “At the Chinese Table: A Memoir With Recipes.” Photo: Scott Peterson

In 2016, food scholar and Bay Area author Carolyn Phillips pulled off an impressive feat. She wrote the first English-language cookbook to examine the 35 cuisines of China. At more than 500 pages, “All Under Heaven” contains more than 300 recipes (her original book proposal called for 1,500) — an astounding accomplishment. The book was nominated for a James Beard Award.

Now Phillips is back with an equally satiating follow-up. “At the Chinese Table: A Memoir With Recipes” is part cookbook, part sketchbook, part ancestral deep dive, part culinary memoir and part love story — a moving and insightful journey through the fertile fields and cluttered kitchens of China, straight into American readers’ hearts, minds and stomachs. As any foodie turned world traveler worth her salt would do, Phillips opens the book with a fragrant and cacophonous scene inside a bustling market — the heartbeat of any town or city abroad. It’s September 1976. At 21, she has just arrived from America as part of a yearlong language program in Taipei and is trying to find her bearings.

Unfortunately, her college-level Mandarin is spotty at best, and her inability to communicate, let alone assimilate into the infamously impervious-to-foreigners community, nearly causes her to jump on the first plane back home. But one exquisite meal in a local noodle dive chips away at her resolve to leave. Then another. Before long, Phillips finds herself swept away not only by the epicurean wonders of her new home, but also by the country’s complicated yet rich history and people: “China’s gastronomy found a way to speak to me, to comfort me, to educate me, to welcome me, and to entice me into hanging in there just a little bit longer,” she writes.

“At the Chinese Table: A Memoir With Recipes,” by Carolyn Phillips. Photo: W.W. Norton & Co.

When Phillips falls in love with J.H., an academic and “gastronomic sponge” 13 years her senior, and over time becomes the most unlikely candidate for eldest daughter-in-law in a traditional Chinese family, her real indoctrination into Chinese culture and cuisine begins. Her life takes off in unexpected ways, molding and kneading her into one of today’s most respected authorities on Chinese cooking.

It’s impossible to include all the ways in which “At the Chinese Table” both ignites the curiosity and titillates the taste buds, but I’ll try. For the chef, the 22 scrumptious-sounding recipes — from Simple Radish Soup to Taiwanese Fried Pork Chops — are accompanied by easy-to-follow instructions and helpful glossary terms so that even a novice won’t be intimidated during prep.

For the empath, Phillips’s knack for capturing just how thorny it can be as an American to ingratiate oneself into a close-knit Chinese family propels the narrative forward. Her bracingly honest depictions of “weaseling into” her icy mother-in-law’s good graces and learning how to re-create centuries-old Hakka dishes from her otherwise standoffish father-in-law are two entries worth savoring.

And for the culinary historian: Unlike some food or travel memoirs that get bogged down by personal drama, Phillips lets the ingredients — and their backstories — do the talking. Her descriptions of dishes, aromas and storied cooking methods thwack, slurp and sizzle off the page. (What to look forward to? Two words: pig’s head.)

“At the Chinese Table” is a book that deserves to be digested slowly — bite by increasingly delectable bite. But make sure you have snacks nearby. Even one chapter will make you hungry.

“At the Chinese Table: A Memoir With Recipes”
By Carolyn Phillips
(W.W. Norton & Co.; 304 pages; $27.95)